Freshman year: The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

Photo from I don’t own it, Professor Google just found it for me.

Sorry for the delay with this one… I’ve been working crazy hard this past week getting a story ready for submission to the podcast Cast of Wonders’ flash fiction contest over at the escape artists forums, and now I’m sick.  But here I am, and I should be here to stay at least until November and Nanowrimo come along.  I’ll try to keep things pretty regular, though. I’m super excited about today’s post though, because it’s The Once and Future Freaking King. The beautiful, amazing series of books that became the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone AND my favorite musical, Camelot. 

The Arthurian legend in all its varied forms is pretty much my favorite story ever.  The fact that King Arthur has been around for some 1500 years, going with the assumption that he was a real person who lived around the 6th century CE, is just amazing. You normally see this kind of longevity in religious texts, and here we have one of the most enduring, human stories ever, loved for fifteen hundred years, told and retold a million times over, because everyone knows and loves Arthur and Guenevere and Merlyn and Morgan and all the knights, and everyone wants to know and love them better.

Normally medieval stories about the hero striving for some cause or another or about the brave knight doing noble deeds end happily.  The hero slays the dragon or the false knight, wins his lady’s heart and lives happily ever after.  The Arthurian legend does not end happily.  Arthur’s loyal knights die, his son turns against him, his wife runs off with his best friend, his best friend betrays the trust that Arthur put in him, and ultimately they all fail. Arthur dies. The Round Table is broken. Guenevere disappears into a convent, consumed by her guilt. Lancelot kills the men he served with and goes to battle against Arthur.

It’s a beautiful, terrible story, and it is one of the most truly human stories I know of. These characters that have existed for more than a millennium are not the cardboard cutout shapes of heroism or villainy, they are fully fleshed three-dimensional people with all the flaws that have always existed in people.  I don’t think that anyone in these stories can really be called a bad guy or a good guy, and T. H. White showed that so wonderfully.  Arthur is devoted to his people and his country. He’s a driven idealist who sees everything through rose-colored lenses, who doesn’t want to acknowledge the fact that his son hates him and is turning everyone against him, or that his best friend and his wife are having an affair.  Guenevere is devoted to Arthur but also devoted to Lancelot, and consumed by her guilt over her love for Lancelot, and her jealousy for Lancelot’s mistress Elaine. Lancelot is devoted to Arthur and Guenevere, and constantly struggling with his own shortcomings.  Mordred is angry, so angry with Morgause and Arthur for the life they have given him, with Arthur’s obvious preference of Mordred’s older brothers, and his embarrassment over his son who is also his nephew.

The Once and Future King comprises the first four of T. H. White’s books about King Arthur, The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.  The fourth book ends the story in the traditional manner: Arthur, defeated and broken, finds one spark of hope and goes off to his last battle.  However, there is a fifth book that completed the story for White: The Book of Merlyn.  Unlike the other four parts of the story, which were published at regular intervals between 1938 and 1940, The Book of Merlyn was not published until 1977. White’s publisher turned it down in 1941 for two reasons which essentially can be condensed into one reason: There was a war on.

White was extremely pacifistic. In 1939 he wrote in a letter to a friend (Taken from the introduction written by Sylvia Townsend Warner to The Book of Merlyn), “If only I can get out of this doomed country before the crash, I shall be happy. Two years of worry on the subject have convinced me that I had better run for my life, and have a certain right to do so. I may just as well do this as shoot myself on the outbreak of hostilities. I don’t like war, I don’t want war, and I didn’t start it. I think I could just bear life as a coward, but I couldn’t bear it as a hero.” 

While all the previous four parts of The Once and Future King reflected White’s pacifism to some degree, and time and again strove to drive home the truth that Might does not make Right, none of them did so more than The Book of Merlyn. Its story revolves around Arthur and Merlyn desperately trying to understand humanity on the night before Arthur’s last battle, and trying to find a way out of the terrible war they had become entangled in. There is one part wherein Merlyn becomes enraged by the human assumption that we humans are smarter than animals and smarter than their own forebears because we have in recent times invented the combustion engine and ever more civilized ways of killing one another. He talks for nearly two pages about how stupid and arrogant this assumption is, because out of all the species living on the Earth, we are the only ones who have invented so many new and interesting ways of making war and killing each other and rationalizing it.  So between paper shortages and what could very easily be interpreted as anti-war propaganda, it was rejected and put aside until after White’s death.

The five parts of The Once and Future King make up a truly amazing story, and one well worth reading. I have five younger siblings, and one of them has already read it. The goal is to have all of them read it while I still have some big-sisterly authority to exert, because it is probably one of the most important stories in the human language, both from the perspective of the sixth century and King Arthur, and the twentieth century and T. H. White, to say nothing of the twenty-first century, and everything going on around us.  If Shakespeare and Jane Austen best understood humanity in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, I think T. H. White understood it best in the twentieth.


And this has gone on for a good long while, so I’ll just finish it up with a bit of one of my favorite quotes from The Once and Future King:

The best thing for disturbances of the spirit … is to learn. That is the only thing that never fails.

You can find the rest of it here.



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